I’M A GIRL, NOT A SLAVE; THE ENDLESS ROLES OF THE AFRICAN GIRL CHILD
Tuesday, February 19th, 2013
I wake up in the morning and the first thought on my mind is the dishes left unwashed from last night’s dinner. Then I think of the fact
that the pump where we fetch our water from is two streets away. I’ve walked that path so many times I could do it blind-folded. And I mustn’t forget that my youngest brother must go to school sporting a properly ironed uniform and with his homework completely, if not completely correctly, done. And then, ‘oh my goodness!’, I’d fallen asleep researching materials for my term paper which is due in two days. Great! These, more often than not, are the waking thoughts of the average African girl child, at least the one lucky enough to be in school.
Discrimination in the home is entrenched along gender roles where boys and girls internalize the gender responsibilities they should take. Certain chores are regarded as “meant for the girls”, while the boy-child has the discretion to select which chores are assigned to him. It is usually the responsibility of girls and young women to fetch water, often from long distances. A study in Kenya identified that women and girls carry from 20-25 liters over 3.5 km for one or two hours daily.
Plan International tells of 14-year old Judith from Zambia who says, “Girls are also the ones who fetch water from streams. Some of the streams are infested with crocodiles and water borne diseases. So the girls are attacked by crocodiles and catch diseases.”
Regardless of the general consensus of the essentiality and necessity of education, there are still many parts of Africa where there is a prevalent belief that education is a luxury reserved for boys alone. According to 10-year old Ballovi Eliane from Couffo District in Benin Republic, “School is a good thing. If you go to school, you will become a female teacher, a minister. However many parents say that it is not good to send girls to school. I have many things to do when I come back home even if I am tired, I sweep the floor, I go to buy things for my mother, and I play with my brother. I do not have much time to do my homework.” (www.plan-international.org). Statistically, women still make up to about 64% of the world’s adult illiterates.
Most African countries comprise inherently patriarchal societies, and as such don’t look too kindly upon the female gender. Discrimination against girls in Africa remains deeply rooted and widely tolerated in its patriarchal societies that allow gender discrimination to continue. Statistical research highlights that despite the numerous global advances in the areas of education, labor, health, and social protection mechanisms, girls in Africa still remain the single most vulnerable group in our society today.
The girl is the cook, cleaner, laundry woman, shopper, home keeper, child bearer, hostess and as many more roles that can be ascribed to the female gender as they are invented. The girl child is the first to drop out of school to take care of a sick parent. She could be plucked out of school to be married off, sometimes to a man old enough to be her grandfather, usually for financial reasons among others. Early marriage is most common in Sub-Saharan Africa. 44% of 20-24 year old girls in West Africa were married under the age of 15and all decisions on timing of marriage and spouse were made by fathers. A study conducted in a rural area in Niger in 2003 found that 68% of girls were married before their first menstruation, and 52% had a child before they reached the age of 16.
Buchi Emecheta, a renowned Nigerian author in her books, ‘Second Class Citizen’ and ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ uses literature to depict the many stages of hardships in the life of the African girl child. From birth through childhood to youth and even till marriage, the African girl child remains a subject of abuse, violence, domination and subservience. Emecheta is one of the many female authors who have resorted to using literature to portray the plight of the African girl child.
Betty Makoni of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe says there are about 40,000 cases of sexual abuse in girls in Zimbabwe alone. Violence in the home is pervasive, with between 20% and 50% of girls experiencing violence in the hands of an intimate family member. A study identified Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda as having high levels of abuse being perpetrated against girls. This included caning, slapping, pinching, burning and over-working. Approximately 1.2 million children every year are victims of trafficking internationally and within local borders, 80% of them are girls. During the Sierra Leonean conflict, young girls were particularly singled out for rape. Many did not survive and approximately 70 to 90% contracted HIV. In the continuing conflict in Darfur, Sudan 40% of the victims of rape are less than 18 years.
The aforementioned statistics reveal that in many of the key areas adduced, the fate of girls in Africa is significantly worse off than in other regions. Most of the statistics quoted in this paper were taken from Plan International’s ‘Status of the Girl Child in Africa’ which included results published by Plan UK “Because I am a girl: The State of the World’s Girls in 2007”. The statistics clearly highlight the extent of discrimination against girls and the prevalence of gender inequalities particularly in the areas of education, health and making a living.
Regardless of the views of many, it is safe to say we still live in a man’s world.
This is not a call for a deviation from our norms and cultures; neither is it a digression from what is conventional and customary; it is instead a call for the recognition of the endless roles played by the African girl child and the priceless value of her contribution to the society. It is a call for the enforcement of the many conventions and covenants that spell out the rights of a child, especially the girl child. These include the Convention on the Rights of a Child, the African Union Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, amongst others. It is a call for the recognition of the fact that just because she’s a girl – doesn’t mean she’s a slave.
Olusile Moteleola Taiwo
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